or First Tuesday: Starting with the Basics
I was practically vibrating with a mix of anticipation and nervousness as I walked towards Tailor. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves before entering, but since I was a couple of minutes early I sat at an empty table and looked around. I realized that I never really sat in the dining area since I always headed down to the bar downstairs. I tried to busy myself to make the nerves go away. Why was I so nervous anyway? I guess I was just having a hard time wrapping my head around what an awesome opportunity I had here and I really didn't want to disappoint Eben Freeman since he was volunteering some of his time to have me hang around and be a general nuisance...oh, and he just walked in.
"Hey, the student is early," he said
There was an event scheduled for the evening so everyone was gearing up for that in the bar area. Once Eben took care of business relating to that, I followed him down to the the bar to see what I could learn today.
"First, I'm going to give you my tenets of bartending, then we're gonna do a little bit of skill and I'm going to let you practice on your own," he said.
Instantly in my head I saw myself dropping stuff, breaking things, and hurting myself in ingenious ways in the course of doing all that.
"That makes me nervous," I said.
"I figured you'll do better without me watching over your shoulder."
As I was soon to find out from Eben, a large part about being a bartender is being confident behind the bar, and I was going to have to practice, practice and practice until I got to a point where I was comfortable with everything behind a bar to project that image of confidence.
"OK, I'm going to explain to you some basic things about bartending," Eben said slipping behind the bar.
First off, learn about spirits. The stuff that's going to go in your cocktail. Eben said this was one of the things I could easily do on my own. Either read up on different spirits and brands, go out and try some, see what other bars have in stock.
Second, keep a clean workspace. This was very important. Eben said clean up after yourself and customers, not as often as possible, but ALL the time.
"Even if you have just one person who sat at that spot, as soon as they go, clear their glass, because someone might want to sit in that spot."
A clean workspace works both ways. For the bartender, it helps with organization and smooths out service flow. You wouldn't want to finish up shaking a drink only to realize that you don't have any clean strainers or glasses to pour the drink into.
For the customer, a clean bar space conveys the message that the person serving them is a consummate professional and more importantly, it's not gross.
"I can tell you of times when I order a drink from a bar without mint and I'll find mint in it," Eben warned.
I crinkled my nose up in disgust. And speaking of clean glassware, I was even given a brief lecture on how to keep the sinks. Cold water vs. hot? Eben prefers hot. In his opinion "Hot water just cleans things better."
He's used to working with hot water, so his hands have toughened up and he has to warn people that just begin working with him that the water in the sink is indeed very hot and they might scald themselves.
Do not mix the side of your sink for soaking with the side that you dump refuse into. This can lead to the "finding mint in a drink that doesn't list mint" scenario Eben mentioned above. More importantly, no drinks with egg whites in them (or just egg whites for whatever reason) into the soaking water.
"Egg whites are used to clarify things like stock and it will do the exact same thing here," Eben explained. "You'll end up with a layer of sludge at the bottom that has everything trapped in it."
Eben said he even will go as far as rinsing a glass out before letting it do its pre-clean soaking.
Third, learn your techniques. Again Eben stressed that this was something I could practice at home. All of this, knowing spirits, keeping a clean house and knowing your tools and technique, was all about providing a confident air of professionalism to your customers and making life easier for you. I nodded. It made sense. Customers are more willing to trust someone who looked like they had their stuff down, and fumbling around frantically behind the bar is not fun at all for anybody.
Eben said, "You're trying to get to a point where you can fill the gap," by which he meant pull of a seamless effortless service, even when it gets busy.
Even if you're making one, two, or five drinks, there's no pause between them, you weave in and out. You know what things go in a glass first, what drinks can sit longer without worrying about dilution so you can mix something else. If there is someone else on shift with you, you may ask another bartender to help you out.
"So say I'm making something like the Waylon," Eben said, referring to the smoked Coke and bourbon cocktail on his menu, "I like there to be a tall head with that."
Now that cocktail would be something you need to make last, but if you have something else that needs to be topped off or is something fizzy? Ask for back up. And that other bartender should be able to work in tandem with you along with his drinks. On top of that, you're also working as a team with your servers if you have any. If one server is still explaining drinks to one table, he or she won't be available to pick up the drink you're making to send to another table, so in that case, Eben said he might hold off on filling out an order for a bit.
I was already trying to digest all of the above when Eben put a whole different spin on that I'd never even thought of. Being a well-prepared bartender could quite possibly save your life. Well, OK, I'm kind of exaggerating, but I'm not being sarcastic. I really had never thought about it this way.
"I've been to places where the bartenders are doing shots with the customers and things like that. And that is not a bad vibe, but for my safety and the safety of the customers, I need to look like I know what I'm doing."
"A place like this is nice, because you have someone out front, or other places have bouncers," he said. "But I started working at places where it was just me behind the bar. That one guy just might have one shot too many and will flip over a table or something will happen, and you're on your own. You're not paid to handle something like that, what are you going to do?"
I nodded as I listened wide-eyed to this explanation. I forgot that sometimes the bartender can be your first and last line of defense in a room full of people drinking alcohol. Sure, if you're one of those places lucky enough to have a heavy working the door, you can call them in when things get all hairy, but for the most part, you're the guy that has to spot and deal with people who could be trouble. You have to have your wits about you to a) first of all notice if there's going to be a problem b) try to ameliorate the situation as much as possible before you call in help or until the cavalry arrives. The bartender is the mood maker of the place. Once again, in the end, it's all about good service.
"When customers see you are professional...they might be in a place that they don't know or are unfamiliar with, but then they can relax when they see that you are relaxed."
And if you look and act like someone who is an authority, it's easier to deter an unfortunate situation.
First Tuesday to be continued...